Saturday, 25 March 2017

Cleary - Vampirella (Dublin, 2017)

Siobhán Cleary - Vampirella

Royal Irish Academy of Music, Lir Academy of Dramatic Art, 2017

Andrew Synnott, Tom Creed, Sarah Brady, Philip Keegan, Tim Shaffrey, Eimear McCarthy Luddy

Smock Alley Theatre 1662 - 23rd March 2017

Aside from Marschner's Der Vampyr and one or two other obscure early 19th century works based on John Polidori's creation, the vampire story is one aspect of mythology that hasn't really been explored in opera. Bram Stoker's Dracula however has tended to present the myth in a relatively more modern context with Gothic overtones that tap into deeper psychological drives and impulses arisng out of a specific period in the late nineteenth/early twentieth century when psychoanalysis was starting to probe the dark horrors of the repressed Victorian-era mindset. Rational thought was starting to replace barbarism and superstition, but in spite of this the modern twentieth century would unleash two greater monsters in the form of two world wars.

If opera hasn't yet seen fit to explore these areas and open up the themes of vampire mythology, film and literature has; particularly in the writings of Angela Carter. It's somewhat appropriate then that it's a female composer who writes a contemporary opera based on an Angela Carter story and radio play and that Siobhán Cleary's second opera should also have its world premiere in Dublin, the home town of Bram Stoker. Vampirella manages to draw from that sense of shared history and the collective fear that Stoker tapped into, but applies it to the modern imagery of the Goth and Carter's modern feminist interpretation - some might say subversion - of myth and fairy-tale. There's something of an overturning of the roles here from the traditional fairy-tale, with the Prince of modernity not so much coming to wake the Sleeping Beauty of the past as unwittingly kill her and all that she stands for.

There is a similar blend of historical and modern revisionism in the Dublin world premiere of Vampirella. The set designs adhere closely to the familiar imagery of the dark and Gothic almost to the point of caricature, with dry-ice aplenty and dark figures in black cloaks bearing candles populating the stage. The venue of the Smock Alley Theatre, originally built in 1662, added an historic quality that if it didn't exactly give it a sense of authenticity at least provided the same kind of contrast between the historic and a modern outlook on mythology that seeks to reinterpret it for a new age. If nothing else, it provided acres of atmosphere.

Even though the story remains set in the year 1914, the plot itself is very much concerned with bringing the vampire myth into the modern age. Count Dracula is dead, killed by a virgin on a virgin horse, but his spirit and practices live on in his daughter, the Countess. It's another innocent who will be the death of the last of this line, a young English soldier called Hero travelling on bicycle through the Carpathian mountains while on furlough. The storyline follows along much the same path as the original Dracula story; Hero encountering strange locals from a village near the castle, becoming somewhat bewitched by the presence of the Countess despite her unusually pointed teeth, accidentally cutting himself and witnessing the troubling response that she has towards the spilling of his blood.

Despite the Gothic trappings and imagery of the traditional vampire story, the more modern outlook upon it is brought out in librettist Katy Hayes' adaptation of Angela Carter's story. Hero is versed in the psychoanalytical investigations that have recently been documented in Vienna, particularly in relation to female behaviour, and he can't help but apply them to what he knows of the Countess. At the same time he is aware of natural drives and impulses and cannot deny an erotic attraction in the deadly situation that can't be entirely rationalised. For a young reserved and somewhat innocent Englishman, this presents quite a complicated set of feelings.

Nature is evoked in a number of ways, again much in the same allegorical 'children of the night' way that Stoker may have applied it in his story. It's a cat who scratches the young Englishman, unable to resist its nature and the implication of course is that the Countess and her line - as a representation of the barbaric ways of the past - are no more capable of resisting those same natural urges and inclinations. In 1914 however, we are now on the cusp of the modern age, capable of analysing and understanding behaviour, but despite the apparent victory of rationalism over barbarism, Hero will end up dying in a war that takes blood-letting to an even greater and more impersonally mechanised scale.

There's a collision of ancient and modern in the storyline and the challenge for composer Siobhán Cleary is to find a match for that in the music. What kind of influence can you draw upon to create a contemporary Gothic score? Some of the influences might be evident and others surprising, but Cleary comes up with an unusual blend drawn from a number of sources that successfully finds its own voice specific to the drama. There's frequent use of a chanted chorus with tight harmonies, some traditional European folk influences, some string quartet arrangements that suggest the romanticism of Schubert (Death and the Maiden?) or something more like Brahms in order to evoke a sensibility closer to the turn of the twentieth century setting.

The hints of older forms of music are blended with a more modern use of sounds, electronics and atmospherics that have more to do with the Spectralism of Grisey and Murail, but greater use of the harp gives a softer and more romantic edge that is more akin to the music of Kaija Saariaho. Individual instruments are also assigned to individuals, but even the singing of each of the characters has its own style. Sarah Brady produces a beautiful and assured lyrical soprano for the Countess; Tim Shaffrey's narrative baritone is electronically enhanced and supplemented for the observing spirit of Count Dracula; Philip Keegan's no-nonsense Hero is given more spoken dialogue than singing; as is Eimear McCarthy Luddy as Mrs Beane, although with her character's sing-song Scottish accent, she is more prone to breaking out into lyrical phrasing in a lovely singing voice that isn't used enough.

The latter character also introduces an element of humour into the otherwise moody proceedings, a tone that is undoubtedly in the spirit of the original to prevent it from being taken too seriously or gothically, but it doesn't always seem to sit well. The varied patterns, textures and styles of the music however do manage to acquire an unexpected coherence through Andrew Synnott's conducting of the RIAM chamber orchestra. Lyrically and dramatically Vampirella might not make any great statement, but it shows Siobhán Cleary as a composer willing to try to find an appropriate lyrical style for the needs of a dramatic situation that incorporates many of the characteristics of the Gothic-Romantic; not so much viewing the horrors of the past through the eyes of today, but reflecting on today with a foot in the past.

Links: RIAM, Smock Alley Theatre, CMC Ireland